[media-credit name=”Simon Scoggins” align=”alignright” width=”259″][/media-credit]With the 36 hours of Daytona in the rear view mirror, the Cup Series headed to the Valley of the Sun. Here is what was surprising and not surprising from the Subway Fresh Fit 500.
Surprising: With the short interval between the Great American Race and the trek to Phoenix International Raceway, the amount of news made before the haulers even arrived in the Valley of the Sun was indeed surprising.
The first ‘surprise’ was for Chad Knaus, who was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races due to illegally modified C-posts found on the No. 48 Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson prior to the Daytona 500. Knaus and his team at Hendrick Motorsports have already agreed to appeal.
The second pre-race surprise occurred with Penske Racing announcing its move from Dodge to Ford in 2013. Roger Penske, the ‘Captain’ of the team, affirmed that he needed to make the manufacturer move for one reason only, to finally secure the Cup championship.
Not Surprising: With a championship level crew chief in Darian Grubb atop his pit box, it was not surprising that his new driver Denny Hamlin raced his way right to the checkered flag. After a spectacular burnout, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota paid homage to his crew chief and team from Victory Lane.
“If you would have asked me, I would have told you I would have taken a 15th place finish,” Hamlin said. “We just kept working at it.”
This was Hamlin’s 18th career win in his 225th start. It was the driver’s first win at PIR, having finished third four times before this victory.
With the win at Phoenix, Hamlin jumped to first place in the point standings. Although obviously very early in the season, Hamlin has not been at the top of the leader board since his losing championship battle two years ago.
“We’ve never been in this position at this point in the season,” Hamlin said. “We’re back this year.”
Surprising: While NASCAR nation has been waiting with bated breath, it was a bit surprising that the Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) reared its ugly head for none other than reigning champ Tony Stewart. The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet fell prey to EFI difficulties, unable to re-fire his engine after attempting to save fuel.
“I just shut the car off to save fuel and it never re-fired,” Smoke, who finished 22nd, said. “I don’t know why that was, but it definitely cost us a good day.”
Not Surprising: Although he did not quite live up to his moniker as ‘The Closer’, the driver of the No. 29 Rheem Chevrolet was pretty happy nonetheless. Kevin Harvick coasted on fumes to secure a second place berth in the Subway Fresh Fit 500.
“Finishing second and racing for a win in a place where we ran back in the twenties, was pretty good,” Harvick said. “You cut the fuel mileage that close, you’re figuring it right. Hopefully this is what sets the tone for the year.”
Surprising: Those drivers hooked up with new teams for the 2012 season did not fare well in the Valley of the Sun. Hendrick newcomer Kasey Kahne hit the wall in his No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet on Lap 22. Kahne ended up in the garage for many laps, finally finishing 34th.
AJ Allmendinger, new pilot of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, also had some calamity befall his Phoenix run. The ‘Dinger was caught up in the Paul Menard crash on Lap 132, relegating him to an 18th place finish.
Not Surprising: After finishing almost dead last at Daytona and under the gun with his penalty, Jimmie Johnson was already 23 points in the hole before coming to Phoenix. Yet, to no one’s surprise, Johnson was in redemption mode yet again, scoring a fourth place finish in his No. 48 Lowe’s Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, moving him up to 38th in points.
“We were concerned about fuel,” Johnson admitted. “We just tried to make sure we got some points.”
“We had a little hiccup on pit road but we really fought back.”
Surprising: It was surprising how well Michael Waltrip Racing performed at Phoenix, at least for the majority of the team members.
Martin Truex, Jr. scored his first top-10 of the year for his No. 56 NAPA Filters Toyota, coming in seventh. Teammate and pole sitter Mark Martin brought his No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota to a second-straight top-10, officially finishing ninth.
“We need to get finishes like this each week,” Truex Jr. said. “And hopefully there are even better ones to come.”
“Proud of the effort,” teammate Mark Martin said. “Any time you get a top-10 finish, you have to say it’s a reasonable run.”
The No. 56 and the No. 55 are now tied, at 71 points, for sixth position in the point standings.
Not Surprising: With the slipperiness of the race track, it was no surprise that several drivers, including the third MWR driver, suffered tire troubles. Most notably on the tire issue list was MWR driver Clint Bowyer, behind the wheel of the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota.
Bowyer suffered tire failure not one, but twice, relegating him to a 30th place finish. The MWR driver now sits 17th in points, falling six spots back due to his tire woes.
Surprising: In addition to EFI and tire troubles, the Valley of the Sun seemed to cause some engine failures as well. Most notably were the blown engines of Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose and Jeff Burton, all of whom had good runs going until the tell-tale smoke billowed out from their tail pipes.
“We blew up,” Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 Stanley Ford Fusion, said simply. “We are here trying to run for wins and run for championships and to trip over ourselves like that, it just isn’t going to get it done.”
Not Surprising: Although not technically a short track, there were some short track tempers flaring at Phoenix International Raceway. Most notably was a flare up between Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Subway Ford for whom the race was named, and Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Wix Filters Chevrolet.
On lap 256, Newman brought out the seventh caution of the race, crashing after contact with Edwards.
“I’m 99 percent sure Carl Edwards didn’t do that on purpose,” Newman said. “But I trusted him.”
“Now he can’t trust me because there is a lot to be had and lost, and we lost today,” Newman continued. “We know plenty of times in this sport, what comes around goes around.”